D&D 4th Edition On 5E Skills (aka How Game System Affects Immersion)




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    ° Ignore Morrus

    On 5E Skills (aka How Game System Affects Immersion)

    This is a topic I've found myself discussing in various forms over the last couple of days. I'm not sure why it's come up so much right now, but I've found myself discussing it in more than once context - a couple of threads here at EN World, an extended Twitter conversation last night, and more. So this is an atempt to compile my thoughts on the matter, partly cobbled together from my previous, scattered, incoherent posts both on Twitter and in the following threads:

    I think this may be a contentious discussion; it's important to understand this is just my opinion on my games. I'll also note that I know no more than anyone else, and less than many - I haven't seen any playtest material or been given any special insight into D&D Next. So this is all conjecture based on the little we do know.

    The subject, in broad strokes, is the way a game's rules and how they're presented can influence the very way a player interacts with a game and a game world. One just has to look at the many different fantasy RPGs on the market to see that different rules structures directly influence how a game is played - not just in terms of the rules being used, but also the way players immerse themselves, the language they use, and so on. These things are all subtly nudged - sometimes intentionally, sometimes not - in one direction or another by the way the rules are presented to you.

    Now, of course, I know that this is not a universal rule. I know that you, reading this right now, are a superlative DM and none of the following examples would EVER find their way onto YOUR game table. You're just that damn good! I, unfortunately, am merely average. Maybe I'm the only average DM in a world of DMing geniuses (which I guess makes them average and me poor) but I suspect that what I'm about to talk about is not a rare occurrence.

    One common criticism levelled at D&D 4th Edition is that the game tends towards the "gamist" - by that, I mean that players all too often think in terms of the game rules rather than in terms of their actions within the game world. So, rather than threatening the orc by crushing a mug in your hand (an example Rodney Thompson used in a recent column), the player "uses the Intimidate skill". This extends beyond skills into the power structure of D&D 4th Edition, but in my mind it's to do with a particular aspect of player psychology: that when presented with a list of things you can do, you are instinctively predisposed to simply choose an option from that list. You're not interacting in an immersive sense with the game world; you're choosing an option from your character sheet.

    Moreover, you're not choosing an action, you're choosing which rule you will use. You're deciding to use this skill or that power. This is exacerbated by a list of skills which are - on the whole - almost verbs in their naming convention. So by extension you're choosing from a finite list of actions defined by the skills on your character sheet.

    I don't think this is limited to 4E, by the way, although it tends to be exaggerated by finite power lists and skill challenges in that system. 3.x suffers from it, too. I think (if I understand what I'm seeing in recent blog posts and columns on DDI) that the structure of 5E will tend away from it, though, as I'll explain shortly.

    As I mentioned earlier, the usual response to this is "never at MY table!" - and if that's your response, then I envy you. You're a better DM than me. If you're immune to the effect of rules structures, I suspect you're a rare beast, albeit a lucky one. It also probably doesn't matter which game you buy; for many of us, though, different game systems result in different styles of play.

    So why do I think 5E is going to improve this aspect of gameplay? I think the two following things combine in a subtle way to affect that trend:

    1. Skills are ability checks (with modifiers for an open-ended list of things you might be good at), not a finite list of 20 "doing words" like "Intimidate";
    2. A check is not always needed, depending on the ablity score.
    I think there is a difference between "I use Intimidate" and "I make a Charisma check". Most of the skills in 3.x/4E are presented as actual verbs - they sound like actions. "Intimidate" sounds like an action; "Charisma" does not. In addition, "Charisma" is much broader than "Intimidate". So the mechanic you use does not have the same name as the action you're taking, meaning it's less likely that you'll simply conflate the two.

    It's a subtle difference, but I feel it can tie into how a player sees and interacts with the rules structure. I'm not saying it magically overrides a particular group's playstyle; just that it has a net average little nudge towards descriptions rather than skill names.

    But - and here's the kicker. None of that matters; it won't often come up, because this structure makes it difficult for players to declare when ability checks are needed. This ties in to the other clever part - not every action needs a check: some of it you can do automatically with a good ability score, and therefore the player himself doesn't know whether a check is required unless the DM tells him so. This is a change from 3E/4E, where easy actions just had a low DC - technically a check was still needed, so the player knew he could declare he was making a Climb check and that the DC was (probably) 5. In 5E, the check is dispensed with for certain actions, but the player doesn't know.

    This means we have a player not being able to say "I make a Strength check". He doesn't know that a Strength check is needed. If ability checks are only called for by the DM in response to appropriate input from the player, the player has no choice but to say "I crush a mug."

    He can't say "I make a Strength check" because the DM replies "I'll decide when you need to make a Strength check, thank you very much; now what are you doing?"

    Player: "Oh, I'm crushing a mug."

    DM: [knowing the character has 17 Strength and the mug is flimsy] "You're a strong guy; the mug crushes easily."

    In the latter case, no check was even needed. In some cases, a check might be needed. But the player is no position to determine whether or not an ability check is required, so is unable to declare he's making one. All he can do is describe his action and wait for the DM to either tell him what happens or ask for an ability check. The player doesn't say "I'm making an ability check", because unless the DM specifically asks for one - he's not making an ability check.

    Don't get me wrong - it's not absolute. It wont' magically change peoples' speech patterns. It's a nudge, not mind control. Things like "I'm using STR to indimidate him" - while of course you could still utter those words, presenting the rules in this way will help tend to encourage people to say "I'm crushing a mug" instead.

    That's gotten a bit rambly. A shorter version is to say that I think that the system is being designed to encourage players to take an action in the game world rather than select a game mechanic.

    I fully realise that the games currently advise you to do the former; that that's how they're intended to be used; and that good DMs may not be as affected by it as, say, people like me. But I strongly feel that the game system itself has as important - if not more important - an effect on how the player approaches the world as does the DMing advice in the book (and the examples of play and so on).

    That's why we like different game systems. They feel different. Otherwise every fantasy RPG would feel exactly the same, and we all know that's not the case.

    Now cue responses full of people describing the superior - correct! - way in which they do it, and why anyone who doesn't is dumb.

    Last edited by Morrus; Wednesday, 2nd May, 2012 at 08:16 PM.

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    ° Ignore Gargoyle
    My only concern with the emphasis on ability scores is that ability scores are already too important with regards to which race is chosen, which magical items are desired, etc.

    By placing even more importance on ability scores, I fear we will see even more characters starting with 20 in their primary ability, and dumping everything else, and that parties will feature one guy who does all the lifting, one who does all the talking, one who does all the thinking, etc.

    Still, I can't think of a better way to do it. Detailed skills rules really have gotten too much attention from the rules in the last few editions and I would prefer this to what we have now.
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    ° Ignore Crazy Jerome
    There's a different way of playing where this isn't so much of an issue. It isn't so much a question of better or worse DMing, as it is of the difference itself, which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Namely, if the group is not particular interested in immersion, per se, then explict, narrative, metagaming (whatever you want to call it) elements used to move the story forward don't have much of this issue.

    So your statement about average DMs to me is a bit like saying, "I'm having a bit of trouble with my backhand, and my serve has lost some of its speed. Other sports enthusiasts may not have much trouble with this, but I guess they are just better." Meanwhile, I'm over here trying to determine a faster, cleaner way to clear hurdles or working on my switch hitting.

    That's not to say that language doesn't have an effect on the non-immersive style(s). I'm sure it does. I'm not so sure the effect is the same.

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    ° Ignore Minigiant
    My main fear is which open skills to be interpreted by the DM, the it all must be interpreted by the DM.

    And the interpretation can change between DMs with no real rule behind some actions.

    For example, the system would nudge me into having my charming scoundrel "tries to explain to the local lord that helping the party helps the lord too"

    Charisma based right?

    Nope. DM says "explaining is Intelligence based so roll Int". But the scoundrel has 10 Intelligence and isn't charming anymore as he fails the check.

    Or the "All social is Charisma vs Wisdom" DM. Breaking the mug is still Charisma: Roll 1d20-2.

    Hard skills may have created undesirable language but almost everyone understood what ability score was used if someone said "I use Climb" and "I Intimidate". Then any house rules and cornercases were dealt with early. But open interpretation to force saying actions in the world leaves a chance where every table is VASTLY different instead of slightly.
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    ° Ignore Ahnehnois
    Quote Originally Posted by Gargoyle View Post
    My only concern with the emphasis on ability scores is that ability scores are already too important with regards to which race is chosen, which magical items are desired, etc.

    By placing even more importance on ability scores, I fear we will see even more characters starting with 20 in their primary ability, and dumping everything else, and that parties will feature one guy who does all the lifting, one who does all the talking, one who does all the thinking, etc.
    A valid concern. If every fighter has to have 20 Str and 6 Cha to be effective, the game becomes homogenous, boring, and strains credibility. The solution is to make all ability scores matter to each character. For instance, having six saving throws. Using all six ability scores regularly (particularly Wis and Cha) makes the game wonderfully dynamic. It's not balance between races or classes that really makes or breaks the game, it's balance between the abilities.

    I haven't used six saves, but I've used Cha-based action points, Wis-based initiative, multiple casting stats for each class, and a sprinkling of other rules to enforce MAD. Believe me, it works.
    "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose"

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    ° Ignore Johnny3D3D
    Quote Originally Posted by Ahnehnois View Post
    A valid concern. If every fighter has to have 20 Str and 6 Cha to be effective, the game becomes homogenous, boring, and strains credibility. The solution is to make all ability scores matter to each character. For instance, having six saving throws. Using all six ability scores regularly (particularly Wis and Cha) makes the game wonderfully dynamic. It's not balance between races or classes that really makes or breaks the game, it's balance between the abilities.

    I haven't used six saves, but I've used Cha-based action points, Wis-based initiative, multiple casting stats for each class, and a sprinkling of other rules to enforce MAD. Believe me, it works.

    Something I started doing (which I learned from GURPS) was sometimes using skills with different abilities than they are normally used with. For a quick arbitrary example which I'm making up, we'll say that a cleric wants to give a rousing sermon to inspire members of a church. I might call for a religion check based upon charisma -that would mean Religion skill level plus Cha mod.

    I have not done so very often when playing D&D, but there have been a few times I've used the idea.

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    ° Ignore GM Dave
    For 5e, is WotC looking to go for a less 'word' defined skill system? Too early to tell.

    I say it is too early to tell because it appears they had a system but they've done some re-thinking of their system. I'm not even sure what we see in the initial Playtest will fully give us a 'clue' as to what the skill system will finalize into.

    An open skill role system which just uses the basic attributes is an easy to write system.

    You just write a rule saying the player should make a roll against an appropriate attribute and the GM will let you know if you succeed of fail.

    That kind of rule when it hits play testing is that it tends to have people wanting to fill in the 'blanks' with 'stuff'.

    One of the articles that was written was the developers trying to decide if they got feedback to 'correct' this situation if they 'added' a new rule or they 'provided' more clarification and guidance.

    This goes further to a psychology problem of types of people. Some people can live happily with vague rules and filling in the bits themselves while other people will only allow what is actually written to occur.

    I've run into this problem with magic spells and requests to 're-skin' them to provide different themes. Sometimes I have a GM that says 'sure, go ahead'; sometimes I have a GM that says 'if you pay a feat tax then you can re-skin'; sometimes I have a GM that says 'Magic Missile does what it describes and if you want a different spell then you have to spend Xgp and time to invent a new spell'.

    It is not just a 'skill' issue but an issue of how people interact with rules.

    Do you reward and encourage people to do 'stunts' in combat like Dragon Age or do you make such things more difficult to do by imposing extra an more difficult roles then simply thumping the person?

    It is also a 'game' issue in how people approach the hobby. If you approach the rules like the rules for a game of monopoly where the dice and rules direct the whole game then you will treat the rules in one way. If you approach the rules like they are guidelines for how you will have fun and are willing to add in other stuff (land on free parking and collect money or little sister gets to buy park place for half money because she is the youngest).

    Some people will argue that if you are just going to 'make stuff up' why bother having rules in the first place.

    Some people will argue that story trumps rules and that rolling for skills at all risks derailing a story (Robin Laws Gumshoe system takes this view).

    The decision WotC ends up in will depend on the play testers and how Simulationist they demand the system to appear verses how much Story dominant they demand the system to be.

    -------------------------------------------

    Personally, I've come to dislike the Simulationist approach of 3e. If you don't have the correct skill then you have a problem. If you roll poorly then it doesn't matter that you are 'skilled' with a +12 modifier as you will still find yourself unable to do something 'basic' like stabilize a dying person.

    There are also issues of skill rolls being needed to repeatedly complete a task that increases the odds of failure (multiple stealth rolls or multiple climb rolls).

    I don't see this being 'alleviated' with going to a system of attribute rolls as you will see more design polarity among players and more complaints that they have an 8 or 6 attribute and not having several attributes of 16 or more to put into attribute slots.

    I also don't think the developers are really going to get the full feed back on that side of the situation until the playtest opens up to character creation where the developers will see the 'average' character is being chosen to not have a 'rounded' set of attributes.

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    ° Ignore MichaelSomething
    Even though this is completely unrelated, I trying to recruit a group for a Mouse Guard game! Anyone interested?
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    ° Ignore RobbieVerde
    I was really looking forward to 5E being announced, pretty much just after 4E came out.

    4E had some great design ideas that I could chew on, but TBH because of its streamlined structure it didn't take very long to digest. Which is great for the game, not so great when you want to ponder and evolve.

    I was hoping there would be something good to think about through 5E, and I think this is the focus area.

    I used to listen to RPGMP3.com and they did Shadowfell and the rest, and while I enjoyed listening to them there was something missing. Then they moved over to Warhammer. I looked at the rules and didn't really like them. They were a bit haphazard and illogical, but when listening to their game it had more feel to it, more roleplay and description. I couldn't put my finger on why the game had that effect, but what you have written here has hit the nail on the head. The setting and rules are more organic, descriptive and provoke imagination.

    Great, this gives me something to ponder, cheers. Hopefully 5E will have an organic, imaginative feel without all of the mess of a system like Warhammer.

    EDIT: I think it can be summarized by the term: ORGANIC DESIGN.

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    ° Ignore Greg K
    I don't consider myself a superior DM. However, I don't see why they just don't give examples of describing skills and advice to the DM on eliciting descriptions from players.

    If this was 3e

    Player (grabbing the dice): I intimidate him
    DM: Not so fast. How is Mog intimidating him?
    Player: Mog uses his great strength to crush the mug he is holding and stares menacingly at him (If the player had just stared blankly after having been asked the question, the DM could ask, "What does Mog do or say to try and intimidate him ?")

    Whether or not Mog needs to make a strength roll to crush the mug is a DM decison. The DM could choose not to require a strength roll if he feels Mog is strong enough and the material is flimsy).

    Now for the reaction, it would depend on whom he is intimidating. Intimidate (Str) sounds logical (see the 3.0 DMG section on using alternate alternate ability scores for skills). The DM could add a modifier or penalty to the check or DC based upon what he knows of the person being intimidated and/or Mog is well known(see DMs best friend in the DMG and note that +2/-2 is a suggestion, but modifiers can range to +/-20). Heck the 3.0 DMG talks about bonuses for being specific. The DM might decide that that the description was worth a +2 bonus on its own to the intimidate check. Then again, if the person being intimidated would just naturally be intimidated by the feat of strength, the DM might let the attempt automatically succeed.

    Most players, in my experience, get the hang of being descriptive (or at least make an attempt) once they have been prompted a few times and know it is expected of them. I would rather keep skills and have the DMG give advice on eliciting description from players (giving them new tools and teaching DMs how to improve) and the PHB have some examples of providing description.
    Last edited by Greg K; Thursday, 3rd May, 2012 at 04:25 PM.
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